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Christiana Brenton

Christiana Brenton

· Time to read: ~8 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Christiana Brenton is Acast's U.S. Head of Sales and Brand Partnerships — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

At the IAB Podcast Upfront a few weeks ago, Acast’s U.S. Head of Sales and Brand Partnerships, Christiana Brenton, took a twist beyond the usual ‘podcasts are great’ story. Christiana made a compelling case about how the dominance of dollars through a handful of podcasts damages the business. Brenton told the crowd that 44% of the advertising allocation reaches just 500 podcasts.

SG: We know big hits drive any media business, and getting to the top is rarified air. Maybe the data showing the revenue concentration in podcasting should not be surprising, but seeing you talk about it at the IAB Upfront throws cold water on podcast monetization. Where did the 500 number come from?

CB: That number came from Podchaser (owned by Acast) and Magellan AI data. According to Podchaser, as of 2023, there are now over 2.3 million English-speaking podcasts listened to in the U.S. We married this stat with Magellan AI data which tells us that 44% of all U.S. advertising investment lands within the top 500 shows alone. But according to Podchaser, that only accounts for 12% of the available monthly listens, so advertisers are missing the opportunity to engage with 88% of the addressable podcast audience.

SG: For clarity, if we’re just taking Apple Podcast data, many of the 2.5 million shows are no longer in production or don’t seek advertising.

All these sources are directional. For example, Apple Podcast data doesn’t consider Spotify exclusives. We do know that regardless of the specific number, the pie of the total available potential is significantly bigger than 100 or 500 shows. The total pie is much bigger than what advertisers are currently tapping into.

SG: Some recent Edison Research data says you can buy a handful of podcasts (44 shows) and hit 50% of the weekly podcast listeners. The numbers differ from yours, but it illustrates how concentrated revenue is for a business celebrated for niche content.

CB: There is no universal truth yet, and we caution clients against that. What does consolidated spend mean for podcasting? Ultimately, it will tarnish the effectiveness of ad campaigns, and there are a few reasons why. The first is concentrated demand has inflated CPMs industry-wide. We’ve entered an era of significant CPM inflation.

A great example is the Emma Chamberlain podcast. It used to transact at a $25 CPM. Since moving to Spotify, it now averages an $85 CPM for the same audience and impression delivery. I’ll also reference Magellan AI. According to their data, on average, the top 500 podcasts have a 30% higher ad load than shows from the top 500 to 3000.

We’re at an inflection point for advertisers and creators to ensure we make the medium sustainable long-term. If it continues this way, podcasting as an industry will only work for a few select shows. If it is too saturated, it won’t perform as well for advertisers or content creators.

SG: It seems to me the opportunity for advertisers is to find efficient programs that go beyond the box office top 500. A gardening podcast for home improvement, a fashion podcast for clothing companies, and car enthusiasts get automobile ads. So much of the opportunity is contextual.

CB: Exactly. The first appeal of podcast advertising was contextual relevance. The consumer is also listening to a breadth of other content. So, you could reach that same audience more efficiently in another program or podcast with a lower CPM.

Every test we’ve done indicates that the cumulative effect of five shows with 20,000 listens each in a niche community is more effective than advertising in one big podcast.

SG: Most podcast aggregators have a relatively small number of podcasts, a few hundred maybe, so they are playing a reach game. You have 100,000 podcasts. That’s a different business model. Are you stratifying the podcasts by demography and topic, such as a network of sports podcasts?

CB: We have multiple different buying routes grouped into 40 contextually relevant collections. What we champion and pioneered is first-party data. It’s about getting the targeting right. You tell us your exact target audience, and we will find them in our inventory regardless of genre or program. When you apply an audience-first lens, it delivers stronger results. We can ensure more accuracy in finding your intended consumer in podcasts.

At the IAB Upfront, we mentioned a case study we did with Orange Theory. Acast delivered a 16% more efficient cost per acquisition with our first-party data than any other audio we tested.

SG: Back in the old days – maybe three years ago, everything was low-tech and host-read. Where does that stand today?

CB: We now have a 50-50 split that matches the trends we’re seeing out of Magellan. For the first time ever, a 30-second pre-produced ad was detected more in podcasts than the host read.

SG: Host-read is a great vehicle, yet major companies like NPR or The New York Times have never done it and still deliver effective advertising for their clients.

CB: Right. That’s another misconception of the industry. Tapping into the host is powerful, but technology has advanced, and we can guarantee more precise audience-based targeting, so recorded audio ads can be just as effective.

SG: That’s where we get to the importance of monetizing the long tail with programmatic. If you follow my writing, we called this out long ago. Without a more efficient programmatic strategy, many producers will likely perish. There must be an automated component.

CB: Yes, recorded audio ads are what’s going to help us monetize the long tail. We all need to embrace programmatic podcast buying. It solves so much for the industry. It will sustain the entire industry at both ends. Programmatic supports a fair and equitable creator economy and campaign performance because it allows us to spread out the ad spend, which means we don’t have CPM inflation and concentrated demand.

SG: Why isn’t programmatic moving faster? It’s relatively small. Is it because podcasters are worried about diminished CPM levels, or they just don’t understand and view programmatic as a solution?

CB: It’s just education. Unfortunately, very few marketplaces are doing pure programmatic podcasting. This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch for Acast, but we are pioneers in building a tech stack that enables programmatic podcasting campaigns. With some others, streaming audio gets bundled with podcasting.

SG: What percent of Acast’s ad business today is programmatic, and what will that look like in a year or two years?

CB: Only about 13% of our audio ads are transacted programmatically. I would forecast within at least 18 months to two years, it will be at least 50% because there’s more advocacy in the industry with partners like The Trade Desk. It is ultimately the future of podcasting.

SG: It seems to me this is critical for a company like yours with a hundred thousand podcasts. They can’t all be served in any other way than programmatic.

Exactly. Because obviously, it’s not scalable. Some of them only do 1,000 a week in terms of impressions. It is certainly in our business interest to enable monetization of the long tail.

SG: As advertising moves past the “cookie,” you mentioned first-party data as a solution. What are you doing there?

CB: The demise of the cookie is going to benefit podcasting. We’ve always operated in a cookie-less world. That’s because most consumption happens on third-party platforms via RSS feeds. Through data partners like LiveRamp, we match data signals with listening graphs.

SG: That’s all-modeled data being laid over your listening data. There’s also BYOD – Bring Your Own Data.

CB: Right. Advertisers come to us with their own first-party data, and we lay over device I.D.s.

SG: No interview would be complete today without discussing brand safety and suitability.

CB: Oh yes. Evolving rapidly. We have a great podcast called Sex with Emily. She’s a doctor. The show’s subject matter is very interesting and compelling for a female audience. Contextual safety is key. She is talking about sex, but that’s the calling card for the show. On any podcast, a bomber jacket could be referenced in an episode, and if you’re using non-advanced brand suitability tools, they would pick up the word “bomb” and assume that that content isn’t brand safe.

SG: Right. Speaking of bombs, what about the basic F-bomb? Does that disqualify a show?

CB: It depends on the brand. Every brand has a different brand safety or brand suitability requirement. If a client is too stringent, they will miss out on so many powerful and available impressions. What makes podcasting so engaging is the authenticity of the host - they can be so honest and authentic and can swear.

SG: Christiana, thanks for your time and fresh view. It is really valuable.

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